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Whither US South China Sea Policy After Mattis? – Analysis


The South China Sea is considered one of the world’s major potential flash points for conflict between big powers. But it takes two to tango –or to tangle. So it is critical for regional stability that the U.S. get its South China Sea policy and actions ‘right’. Although tough on China, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis was seen by many as reliable, measured and not unnecessarily confrontational despite the urgings of  more bellicose voices inside and outside the administration. Indeed, in the midst of the overall deterioration of US-China relations he provided some stability in military to military relations. Now pundits are pondering the implications of his abrupt departure. The views and style of his eventual successor will be a major factor in US-China military relations going forward. But the strategic and US domestic political context in the South China Sea remains more or less the same and will present pressing and potential issues requiring decisions regarding US policy and there.

The US-China disputes in the South China Sea are infused by a much deeper contest over the future of the Asian regional order and their respective roles in it. At base the dialectic is simple and stark. America wants to remain the leading strategic power in Asia and China wants to replace it.

China’s President Xi Jinping has proclaimed that that his country’s burgeoning wealth and power has validated the Communist Party’s (and his ) leadership. He has declared defiantly that “No one is in the position to dictate to the Chinese people what should and should not be done”. The stakes are very high for Xi’s China. It is unlikely to be intimidated and ‘pull in its horns’ in its own ‘backyard’. Indeed it may well meet US bluster, threats and provocative actions with its own. Its nationalists in the government and among netizens –and particularly those in the People’s Liberation Army Navy –will press China’s leadership to respond to any further “provocations’. This means that more military to military incidents are likely and that they may make past such international incidents seem minor by comparison. Overreaction could cause kinetic conflict.

The context of the next Defense Secretary’s decision making will also be influenced by US President Donald Trump’s predilection for ‘isolationism’ and ‘America First’ including his skepticism of alliances that Mattis supported. Trump seems wary of expending more American blood and treasure to defend allies like Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan, especially if they militarily provoke China while expecting US back up. This could counterbalance any appointee’s urge to flex US muscles in the Asian region. Moreover, Trump’s abrupt unilateral withdrawal of US troops from Syria and Afghanistan may stimulate friends and allies in Southeast Asia to realize they are probably on their own and act accordingly.

Mattis’ approach to China was in keeping with the U.S.’s new National Security Strategy that delineated China as a “strategic competitor” and a “revisionist” nation, warning that “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region”. 

Under Mattis, the U.S. stepped up the frequency of its provocative Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) challenging China’s claims. He demonstrated US support for Taiwan by approving three transits of the sensitive Taiwan Strait in one year by warships after a previous hiatus of a year. He also approved new arms sales to Taiwan which really angered China. Under Mattis there was an increased frequency of flyovers of the South China Sea by nuclear-capable B52 bombers. He also excoriated China for “coercing and intimidating” rival claimants there and he was so concerned about China’s “militarization” of its occupied features that he rescinded an invitation to China for the world’s largest multilateral maritime exercise –RIMPAC 2018.  Moreover he promoted and allowed the US military to amply demonstrate the US policy that the US would “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allowed”.

However Mattis did try to reassure China early on in his tenure by saying “At this time, we do not see any need for dramatic military moves at all” and he maintained that the U.S. is not trying to “contain” China. He tamped down the rivalry by observing that China and the U.S. would sometimes “step on each other’s toes” and that the two powers needed to find ways to manage their relationship.

Some say there has already been a recent incremental shift to a more aggressive US military posture in the South China Sea.  US military ‘incrementalism’ there is compatible US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s penchant for taking greater risks than his recent predecessors. He appears to have concentrated control of security matters and Trump is clearly distracted. At least in the near future Bolton will have increased influence on US security policy and actions. Whether the new defense secretary will have the personal clout and connections to counterbalance possible bad decisions by Trump or Bolton on South China Sea issues is an open question.

The new Defense Secretary will be faced with many issues and specific decisions regarding the South China Sea.  What will the U.S. do if –or more probably when –a Chinese warship again blocks a US warship challenging China’s claims? In the previous dangerous incident involving the Decatur, Mattis choose not to kinetically escalate.

Will the U.S. clarify its interpretation of its obligation to support the Philippines militarily if it is attacked in the Spratlys? If it does so in the positive –as the Philippines is demanding and  bellicose US pundits are recommending–the Philippines could, through intent or miscalculation, draw the U.S. into military conflict with China.

Will the new Secretary continue to recruit and encourage other powers –like the U.K., France and China’s nemesis Japan to either join it in its FONOPs or undertake their own challenging China’s claims? On 27 December, the Pentagon’s top Asia official urged Australia and other US allies to boost their military presence in the South China Sea. And will he or she continue or even increase its provocative ISR probes in the face of China’s increasingly shrill protests?

Hopefully, whoever is nominated and confirmed as the next US Secretary of Defense will understand –as Mattis apparently did –that overreaction to small crises can produce war just as easily as policy failure. More importantly he or she should understand that although in the past “the purpose of a nation’s military forces had been to win major wars, it now must be to prevent them” especially when potential conflict involves nuclear powers.

This piece first appeared in the South China Morning Post.

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Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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